Saturday, August 27, 2011

Bike Safety, Part II

In a previous post I made an attempt to quantify how safe bicycle commuting was for me, personally. I concluded that for my specific situation it was probably safer than driving, and that the lifetime risk of death was at an acceptable level.

Since then, the north end of the Burke-Gilman trail has been closed for much-needed repairs and improvements, and the lack of a good detour has forced me out onto the streets for a shorter but more harrowing commute down the Interurban corridor. After two months of deprivation I have a renewed appreciation of how great an asset the Burke-Gilman trail is. And an incident this week underscored just how hazardous it is when bicycles and cars share the same pavement.

The Interurban trail is a work in progress. I get on just north of 185th and enjoy uninterrupted (if less than ideal) trail riding until 145th. Then it's onto the streets to 130th, back onto a dedicated trail, and then back to the streets for good at 110th and Fremont. This is where things get dicey.

Fremont Avenue north of Woodland Park is a low-traffic street, presumably good for bicycling. The problem is that every minor intersection is uncontrolled, with a small central barrier serving to slow traffic and suggesting (but hardly enforcing) a roundabout pattern of traffic flow. Bicycles can cruise straight through - but they shouldn't. In most cases visibility down cross-streets is poor until you get really close to the intersection, so the only way to ride safely is to cross at low speed. For southbound riders the geography is uniformly downhill from 105th through 85th, so this means continual braking.

On Thursday this week a young woman passed me at 105th. Concerned, I watched her slow down as she approached 104th, so I stopped worrying. Six blocks later I found her on the ground, in the middle of the street, with a car stopped by the central barrier and a concerned couple ministering to her needs. I didn't see the accident, which evidently was mercifully minor, but it was clear what had happened. My unease with the route increased.

South of 85th I head east to Greenwood, where I share the bike lane with buses and opening car doors. It concludes with an exhilarating, high-speed bomb down Fremont Avenue south of Woodland Park where the safest course of action is to share the lane with traffic, which in general is aware of and quite tolerant of us numerous bicyclists.

I haven't tried to recalculate my odds of survival over the next 10-20 years, since this is a temporary situation, but in just two months it has become abundantly clear that my ride is far less safe now. Unfortunately, just about the time the Burke-Gilman trail is scheduled to reopen my company will be moving its office out of Fremont to the International district, way down on the south end of downtown. I haven't tried to work out the best route there yet, but I really needn't bother: there's no question it will be much worse, worse even than my current commute.

Two months of street riding have me all but convinced that this is no way to spend two hours of every weekday. Sad though it is, I think my bike-commuting days may be numbered. My tentative plan now is to bike six miles to Edmonds and take the Sounder train downtown when the weather is good, and walk a mile and take a Community Transit express bus when it isn't. I'll have to get in my biking some other way.

I've worked my way through the K├╝bler-Ross stages of grief scale (though I think I skipped stage 3, Bargaining - just who would I bargain with?) and have now arrived at stage 5, Acceptance. I'm already finding upsides: less joint pain, more time to read, less total commute time. But I know I'll have to find some other way to stay in shape, and I'd like that to involve bicycling in some manner. Weekend rides with my wife to Redmond for breakfast? The occasional bike tour? Maybe I'll even finally sign up for one of the Cascade Bicycle Club rides I read about in their monthly newsletter.

Whatever happens, 2011 will go down as a Year of Change: a daughter married off, our son heading off to college leaving us in an empty nest, a historic Scandinavian tour...and the end of a decade of bicycle commuting.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Biking in Copenhagen

Copenhagen, the most bicycle-friendly city in the world - and I got to see it this summer.

Within five minutes of arriving it was clear that this city was like none other I'd seen. Check out the bikes parked in front of the train station:


A block away I encountered a full-width lane dedicated for bicycles, physically separated from car traffic. Turns out the whole city is like that - and the lanes are packed.

Sounds great, doesn't it? But if you picked up a Seattle biker and dropped him in the middle of Copenhagen the response might not be as euphoric as you'd think.

Did I mention the bike lanes are packed? That means that a substantial portion of the population (the city itself claims 35%) is commuting by bicycle. And it looks it - the bicyclists represent a true cross-section of humanity. High-heel wearing, cell-phone-toting commuters abound, sometimes texting while they pedal. They pile up in great crowds at stop lights.

I suspect a Seattle cyclist would be pulling his hair out in frustration if he thought he could make the same kind of time getting from point A to point B in Copenhagen as an equivalent trip would take in Seattle.

I floated this theory to a friend I met up with who had moved to Copenhagen a year ago. He rolled up to our rendezvous point by bicycle and deftly locked it to a stand with a one-handed flick, acting impressively native, I thought. He confirmed that it took him a while to adjust his expectations and adopt an "I'll get there when I get there" attitude.

The good thing is that everyone seems to have adopted this attitude. I saw no evidence of the short tempers and aggressive weaving I would have expected (and have at rare times experienced) in such a crowded field of cyclists. Somehow, despite the crowding, the Danes have avoided creating a bicycle rat race.

This gives me hope that such a fate can be avoided in Seattle, too, as bicycle usage rises and our routes get crowded with ordinary people (i.e. not Racers and Fitness Geeks). Let it be so.